Category Archives: Stories

Richard Boes Memorial Award-Winning Book 2012

Deadly Lode
Deadly Lode

The 2012 Richard Boes Memorial Award goes to Randall Reneau for his book  Deadly Lode ISBN 978-147913179-2).  The award is a $200 cash prize for best debut book by a veteran (fiction or memoir) and is sponsored by Modern History Press. An excerpt from Renau’s book will appear in an upcoming issue of Recovering The Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing. The contest is administered by Reader Views Inc., which includes a general book award contest as well.

Daryn Watson’s review at Reader Views noted: “Deadly Lode is a great fiction novel and a very easy, enjoyable and quick read.”

Richard Boes (R.I.P.)
Richard Boes (R.I.P.)

Richard Boes enlisted into the US Army and served in Vietnam in 1969 – 1970 with the First Air Cav. He is the author of two books, The Last Dead Soldier Left Alive (2007) a firsthand inquiry into why thousands of Vietnam veterans have committed suicide and Last Train Out (2008). Right up to his death Richard was writing a third, In the Valley of Dry Bones. He passed away on Feb 21st, 2009 at the VA Hospital in Albany, NY.

Past winners of the Richard Boes Memorial Award

Richard Boes – My Blue Block of Wood

“He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

From Agamemnon by Aeschlyus

It was a plane full of strangers, a hundred and fifty of us maybe, but no one I remembered or seemed to know from a year ago. Just this deafening silence like the kind that stops you at the moment somethin’ or someone dies. Jesus, it ain’t me anymore reflected in the window glass but ghosts, faces I’d known, Buttkins, Henderson, Walsh, Casey-fuckin’-Jones. A backdrop of flares, tracer bullets, an explosion here and there like fireworks across a black screen, a black sky, a black hole we were shooting out of as we taxied down the runway.

Even in this pressurized cabin, the heat still clung to my flesh, the stench, the taste of burnt, rotting corpses still permeated the air. You couldn’t wash it off, there hadn’t been time, no debriefing, besides it was stuck in my throat, suspended somehow between home and my gut.

We were all in jungle fatigues, worn and faded green, muddy, some ripped, others bloodstained. As was the practice, I’d crossed off days on a pocket calendar, sealed tight in a personalized, plastic, First Cav, waterproof wallet. Still, though the ink bled, eventually I called myself “Short!”

“Short! Three days and a wake-up,” Brown yelped. Now this here was the fuckin’ wake-up, I was in tow, goin’ back to the world. Thinking, couldn’t stop myself, all the things I’d truly missed, all the things I’d do. Still, I sat in disbelief. Why me?

I couldn’t stop my legs from moving, up and down, side to side, in and out of time. There was a chorus stirring about me, a rustling movement goin’ nowhere. That final fear resonated in everyone’s eyes, what if we take a fucking rocket? What if we crash? After all this shit, the irony, Jesus, wouldn’t it be my luck? I continued my search back and forth, front to back as if scanning a perimeter, a fuckin’ treeline. It wasn’t the enemy I was looking for, not this time, but someone, anyone I might recognize. No one, it seemed. We’d all been abandoned by a meaningless war, forsaken on all fronts, both sides, both for and against. Even to ourselves we were strangers. God was absent. I was alone.

A tour of duty was a year, troops coming and going every day like a shift-change entering or leaving a factory. Dispersed, replaced, gathered up, and sent off. This was very much an individual war. I’d left everyone in my platoon, my company, behind as others had previously left me. I wasn’t supposed to care. I didn’t! When Myles left a few months earlier, he cried and held me in his arms. He was drunk. O’Brien borrowed ten bucks he was gonna mail to me, but six days back in the world he deliberately drove off a bridge in his brand-new red Corvette. And Casey, Casey re-upped for the fuckin’ dope. This war was about getting me out alive, and up to now I’d been victorious.

The pilot broke the silence announcing over the PA, “Gentlemen, we’ve just cleared Viet Nam airspace.” We all cheered, but it was like someone trying to laugh who can’t stop crying, like trying to make small talk at your best friend’s funeral. Quickly, the silence returned. I couldn’t stop my legs from pumping. There in the glass were only shadows of who I once was, who I didn’t recognize anymore, a fuckin’ ghost.

I do, I do believe… I do. Smacking my knees together, these muddy boots like ruby red slippers. It’s over. I’m going. I’m goin’ home.

We stopped twice briefly to refuel, once in Thailand, then Hawaii, and eighteen hours later landed in California. We were bused to a military base. No wire mesh on the windows anymore to repel explosive cocktails, no fires in the skies like when I got to the war. No heat, no stench clinging to my flesh, but this one, this taste I’d brought home in my mouth like the promise of milk and honey gone sour. There wasn’t any fanfare, there was no one. We walked through a barn door, the back door of a building, a basement entrance, down a long corridor of bare bulbs and concrete, what looked like a warehouse, a slaughterhouse, or even a fuckin’ prison… like I was gonna be interrogated, tortured, or somethin’, somethin’ bad. And over the archway was a sign that read, “Your Country’s Proud of You.”

“Fuck you!” shouted someone. Others laughed, or tried to.

“The joke’s on us,” I told the guy to my right, who tossed up a middle finger. Some officer in clean-starched khakis, donning a blonde, butch, stuck-up haircut, broke us down in columns and pointed us in which directions to go.

“Welcome home, welcome home, welcome home,” he whispered as we passed in rows of two. No one saluted, and I could tell we made him nervous.

Welcome home motherfucker! was my only thought, as I pretended to trip and bumped him up against a wall. “Excuse me, Sir.”

I took a shower, a fuckin’ hot shower, and got me a change of clothes. Goddamn dress greens! I wasn’t thrilled about having to wear a uniform. Besides the stories of being spit upon and the name-calling, a rumor was circulating that a woman approached a soldier in a commercial airport, identified the patch on his arm as being the same as her son’s, same as mine, he’d been killed. She wailed, “Why are you still alive?” pulled a gun from her purse and shot him dead.

Some spiffy soldier, a fuckin’ paper-shuffler, sat behind a desk and asked if we had any wounds he needed to make note of. “Speak now, or forget about it.” His name tag read “Pilot,” all the hair he’d left on his head like cotton balls was in his ears. God was here, alive, and laughing.

“I’m fine,” I told him, ignoring the shrapnel that was still in my leg. “I just wanna go home.” There was a free steak dinner, but no one I knew of was hungry for food. I collected my things, and soon enough was on a plane back East, and homeward bound.

It was sometime after midnight and the airport was practically empty. In a day’s time, I’d traveled from the hellish jungles of war and was just a forty-five minute car ride from home. I’d called Jimmy, my best friend since childhood, and he was en route. My family expected me sometime during the month, but had no idea I was soon to arrive. It felt strange wearing dress greens and not jungle fatigues, bright ribbons and patches instead of camouflage. These new shoes only hurt my feet, I missed my muddy boots. Still, I couldn’t sit still and wait, but had to walk around.

All the shops were closed. I was too young for the bar, too young to vote, too young for anything, but not to die. So few people around, and those who did pass avoided eye contact. I wanted so badly to celebrate, to yell out as fucking loud as I could, I’m home! To grab some girl and dance, dance the fuckin’ skies like an angel, to sweep her off her feet with a passionate kiss. Like that photograph, that other war, a war that meant somethin’, but no one seemed to notice me, no one cared. I was fuckin’ invisible. I didn’t fit. I didn’t belong here. I might even welcome someone calling me a bad name, at least to show I’m alive. Me, the keeper of a lost war, a war no one seemed to recognize, or desired any knowledge of. Jesus, it’s all that I’m about anymore. And if I could I’d fuckin’ disappear like you wish I would. If! If only I could. And the enemy was silent, and the silence was killing me.

I tried saying something to someone, anyone, say anything like, what time is it? Nice weather we’re having. Have you change for a dollar? Excuse me, Miss, my name is Lazarus, I’m back from the dead, and I ain’t got a fuckin’ clue.

This underwear I hadn’t worn for a year, buttoned-up collar and tie, irritated the jungle rot, the pimpled sores that oozed in a straight line from the base of my neck to the balls of my crotch. There’s too much starch in this shirt. I itched like a fuckin’ leper on parade, a bad case of mistaken identity, and, and I had to pee. Where’s the men’s room? I could ask, but fuck it. I’d find it myself.

I lost the tie and unbuttoned a few buttons down my shirt, took the bayonet strapped to my leg and cut my underwear off. The bathroom was empty, so I thought, standing at the urinal having a good scratch, taking a leak, caught unawares as the janitor came out from the toilet area and dropped a large trash drum to the floor. Incoming!

Shrapnel flies up and out, hot and screaming, so the lower you get the better your chances. In a split-second’s nosedive, I was flat against the earth sucking up warm wet tile in a puddle of my own piss. A moment’s flash and I’m back there, had I ever left? Where the fuck am I now?

“Sorry boy, you’s okay?” A soft, black, gray-whiskered face was leaning over me.

“Yeah,” I said, “guess so,” feeling only grateful it wasn’t a rocket. He handed me a towel from around his neck.

“Dry’s yourself,” he winked a surprising sky-blue glass eye, scratched with fat nervous fingers atop his thinning hair. “Sold, it’s the first four letters of soldier, a four-letter word,” he laughed, a disheartened-like punch-drunk fighter’s wheeze. “And your sellin’ price,” shooin’ a fly from his face, “wasn’t even our freedom. My name’s Elijah,” he took up his mop. “There’s no good wars to speak about, but at least my’s generation, our war had a purpose.”

“Thanks,” I said as he took back his towel, and shook my hand.

“Wars is fought by us poor folk, us soldiers, is niggers, and all niggers is trained to die.” He itched with a flurry of pokes at his nose. “Don’t you let them make it your fault. You’s hear me boy?” I just nodded my head and made my way for the exit. Elijah fumbled twice, dropped his mop to the floor. I wanted to catch it, but was too far off, too slow, too late. He called out as the door closed between us. “You’s be a survivor.”

Me and Jimmy were both more than tired. He was against the war, an accountant now, not much for words. I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. We talked sports some, the Mets had won the World Series, the Jets the Super Bowl, the Knicks were NBA champs. Other than him reading every street sign, billboard, storefront we passed, we were mostly quiet. “Shop Rite,” “Two Guys”, “Kool, come up, all the way up.” Yeah, I was feeling anxious, afraid, guilty I think about coming home.

Elijah was right. It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t up to me. I didn’t choose to be there, who would die, and who would come back. And there ain’t no more Stockwell, Abrams, Smyth, or Donny Gains. Jesus, and Rodney Brown who stood where I stood just moments before. “Short! Three days and a wake-up,” he yelped in a black man’s drawl. “I’s goin’ back to the world! I’s one lucky motherfucker!” and Betty, Bouncin’ Betty, she’s a goddamn landmine, bounced up in his lap, cut ‘im in fuckin’ two! And a B-40 rocket swallowed what was left into tiny little fucking pieces.

“Don’t mean nothin!” Myles said.

And I’ll never know by just how much I missed her. Half a step maybe, If! Guess I’m one, one lucky motherfucker! Just these shards, bits of metal in my leg. And one, Rodney’s one patch of black hair sunken in behind one eye swimming in a sea of brain matter, all pink, and blue, and gray. We collected him in a black bag, “I’m in pieces, bits and pieces!” Me and Myles kept singing, stomped our feet, scattered the fucking bits that weren’t even pieces anymore.

You’re really alone during a rocket attack, there’s nothin’ anyone can do. You’re really fuckin’ alone, when the other guy’s dead. If! As if he’d taken my place. And if you’re one of the lucky ones you get to do it again. And again. And the repetition, over, over, and again. And the pieces that won’t fit together like Humpty Dumpty didn’t have to pick himself up. And all the King’s horses wear blinders, and all the King’s men believe their own lies. “Don’t mean nothin’!” And the fucking fear that resonates, echoes back and forth, gnaws and eats away at you, over, over, and again. It’s worse than death. I do believe, I don’t believe you. And who’s the lucky motherfucker?

We sat at the tracks waiting for the train to pass. Its whistle and pulsing bark put me on edge, my feet on fuckin’ trampolines. Here I was alone again, with Jimmy in the driver’s seat, still waiting. I tried counting cars, seven, seventeen, seventy-eight, how many more before I’m home safe? The face in the windshield was Rodney’s. All I really wanted was to be held, for someone to hold me.

Me and Jimmy met some twelve years ago, he was a few years older and my family’d just moved into the neighborhood. I had this old beat-up glove that was my Dad’s and a blue block of wood I was using for a ball. I was throwing it high up against the side brick of the house and making basket catches like Willie Mays. The whole game was alive in my head, both teams, a miss was a run and it was one-one, in the bottom of the sixteenth. Jimmy approached unnoticed until he sneezed, a giant fuckin’ sneeze. He was a tall skinny kid with a face like Goofy, a dried mop of brown hair, and a big long tweaked nose. I’d made a bad throw, and just missed catching it with a diving attempt into the bushes. “Nice try,” he said, and goofed up a laugh like a jackass hee-haws. “That’s it, game’s over, you lose!” Jimmy invited me to join him and his friends up the block, the Dick Street Bombers. They had a real ball, and needed a center fielder.

In a few weeks I was to be the best man at Jimmy’s wedding.

Sure we were happy to see each other, but something was missing, it just wasn’t the same. Yeah, guess it was me who’d changed. I wanted to tell him about the war, about Rodney, what I’d seen and done, but didn’t know how, couldn’t find the words. Anyway, I didn’t think he’d understand.

We were just a few miles from home and I had to say somethin’, flush this spin-cycle circlin’ my brain, break my fuckin’ silence. I mentioned meeting Elijah, him helping me up off the floor, and the conversation that followed. Suddenly and without warning, Jimmy’s Mustang jumped the curb. He’d fallen asleep on me, and we were headed straight on for a telephone pole. The second thu-thump of the back tires woke him the fuck up. “Jesus!” he shrieked, but was slow to react. In one sweeping motion I reached over and cut the wheel to the left landing us back on the street. Jim was a bit shaken up, squeezed tight. “Sorry,” he said, “coulda killed us.”

“Don’t mean nothin’!” I told ‘im, and for a moment I was baggin’ Rodney again. “Just stay awake, Jim. We’re almost home.” I never called him Jim. Something felt good inside, this wasn’t like a rocket attack, there was more I could do than just be a passenger.

“See ya man, thanks for the ride.” I closed the car door, Jimmy drove off. The house was all dark, no porch light left burning. Bones, my dog must of come home, but there ain’t no barkin’. I climbed the steps, hit all the fuckin’ cracks down the walk, another flight of steps. They never locked the front door, but something stopped me from opening it. I turned myself around, gazing up at the streetlight. A pair of my old sneakers still hung by their laces over telephone wire, deep blue shadow sifted through naked tree branches like distant fingers, reaching into, grabbing at a big thick slice of pitch-black, heavenly mud-pie. No stars. Still no Bones.

Mom, Dad, my two younger brothers and sisters were inside sleeping. I felt this knot in my stomach like the whole fucking war was twisting up inside me, might I just fuckin’ implode! I wouldn’t wake them, I’d go quietly upstairs and go to bed. I’d see them come mornin’. I opened the screen door, stopped, and had to close it, opened and closed it again. Walked round the side of the house, doubled over, body doubled up, holdin’ my stomach, leaned into some bushes and started throwing up. Once, twice, over and again until there was nothin’, nothin’ but bile, yellow sauce, until all of me was empty, inside and out. And there, right the fuck before my eyes, peering out at me, out from under dead leaves and a fresh spray of vomit was my blue block of wood. I scooped it up as if I’d found lost treasure, gold and silver bullion, and cleaned it off with a few swipes against the grass. I clenched it in my fist, couldn’t help but smile. Bones came running up, his blackness all a-glow, excited and welcoming me home.

I looked in for a moment at my youngest brother Billy, my godchild sleeping peacefully. As a child I was a sound sleeper, I once fell off the top bunk of a bunk bed and didn’t wake up. Hearing the thud, my parents came rushing in from the living room and found me sleeping on the floor Now I had to put my mattress on the floor, and it was a good thing that my room was the smallest in the house, most like a bunker, less of a target, it provided a false sense of security. Accustomed as I was to the constant barrage of noise a war makes, now the silent night of suburbia was keeping me awake.

After only a few weeks in Viet Nam, I knew every sound of darkness like a blind man knows his own home. What was incoming and cause for alarm, and what was going out. I slept on a thin dime, and the faint whistle of a distant rocket would call me out from a crowded dream. I’d be hugging mother earth like a babe for milk, sucking up mud like wanting breath, steel pot and flak jacket on. I’d have a fuckin’ cigarette lit before the first round hit, before any siren ever sounded. If! And if it let up long enough you ran for a bunker.

I came to know with acute precision, like a fine-tuned instrument, the difference, the distinction in every sound the blackness made. What were rockets, mortars, short rounds, a.k.a. friendly fire, snafu! Fred took one in the shower. Small-arms, M-60s, M-79s, quad-50s, B-52s, and oh how the ground shook. Flares, Claymores, bounce, fuckin’ Bouncin’ Betty, fuck! Fuckin’ B-40! If! A sapper left a satchel charge in a hooch two doors down. Don’t mean nothin’! A luring Loach, whoop, whoop, whoop, draws out enemy fire, a seething Cobra and other gunships closin’ in. Woof! Napalm jet streamers, and Puff, Puff the Magic Dragon, whose mini-guns from on high could infiltrate every fuckin’ square inch of space the size of a football field in a matter of seconds. Every twenty-seventh round was a tracer, and we watched cheering atop a bunker as the red whip, the red whip waved on, and on, and fuckin’ on like hells bells rainin’ down.

We were the supreme, ultimate firepower of the skies. Absolute, all-powerful, like God I thought, like God lacks humility. But the enemy was underground, tunneled in beneath the earth, at the core of believing, beyond extinction.

Now I scanned about my room by the gray-blue shadows of moon, and filtering streetlight, beads like tears patterned upon embroidered curtain lace. In the wake of the battle, tired enough, but unable to sleep. The rug was sky blue and grape-juice stained, the walls needed more than paint. Jesus was missing limbs on the crucifix above, at the back of my brain, broken off by a touchdown pass that should have been caught. Dust collectors on bookshelves posing as trophies, old posters, banners, signed baseballs and other sports memorabilia. My bruised blue block of wood I’d placed on the dresser, my bayonet sheathed, asleep under my pillow. That picture, without any glass, a gentle boy laid back on a hillside, all blue-jeans, white button-down shirt, red-vested, black shiny curls, an arm up shielding his eyes from the sun. Tell me, tell me again… please, tell me your dreams?

Football is the precursor to war, the training fields, the same language. Kill, kill, kill! War is the ultimate sport, the culmination of sport. Kill, or be killed! Kill the Giants, Jets, Patriots, and Eagles. Kill the fuckin’ Yankees, Braves, and Angels. Kill Babe Ruth! Killroy, he’s not here anymore. Kill Jim Brown, John Brown, Charlie Brown, and Rodney Brown. ‘‘I’s one lucky motherfucker!” Kill the fuckin’ Gooks! Kill the Japs, the Krauts, the Commies, and the Jews. Kill Goliath! John the Baptist, John the Catholic, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr.!

“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Kill Jesus! And like Cain slew Abel, I am the plowman, the keeper of a bad uprooted seedling, maimed and forced to wander. And Abraham, what of Isaac? Kill me!

Bones rests his head on my belly, looks up at me, gives me a stare like what the fuck man, like he knows my thoughts like he feels bad for me because I’m a fuckin’ nut job! “Good old Bones.”

It’s raining now, a soothing rain, rap, a pat, tap, and the occasional swish of a passing motorist endeavoring to lull me to sleep. It’s not that hard monsoon rain that blinds the sky, or the sound of hot screaming metal cavorting off tin roofs, that piercing screech that howls and rips through tent canvas embedding itself below the heart at gut-level.

Uncle Ho’s birthday, I couldn’t stop the thoughts. We were hit five times during the night with over ninety rockets. Every time I’d fall asleep. Again, over and again. We got no fuckin’ sleep. From side to side, closer, overhead, then passing. Back and forth like walking giants. Giant steps. Explosive, deafening! Fe, fi, fo, fum! If! If one hits the roof you’re dead! Away, and back again. Approaching, closer, fi, fo, fum! If! If one hits the roof, and again! Over and again like the buttoning and unbuttoning of shirts until all the buttons fall off.

I’d promised God I’d go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. If! If he’d just get me the fuck outta here alive. The hooch in front of us was hit, and all twelve guys obliterated. The tent to the right, the one behind were all gone now. And still came the giants. Fi, fo, fum! And Casey, Casey took one in the shithouse while shootin’ up at the war. Happy fuckin’ trails! Swishhhhhh.

My eyes pop open, toothpick wide! This ain’t no fuckin’ war, this is my room, there’s Bones asleep on the floor like old paint. Please, dear God, but for thy grace, grant us some fuckin’ sleep. Rap, a-pat, tap. Fe, fi, fo, there are no giants anymore. Swishhhhhh.

We sat on empty ammo boxes under a sweltering sky in twelve rows of five. It was Palm Sunday, my first Sunday in Viet Nam and the last time I attendedMass.A Major, a priest who resembled Elijah, stood before us in bloody, torn jungle fatigues and addressed us as a group. The blood was blue. “I haven’t time to hear your confessions, so just think of your sins, and you’s forgiven.” He made the sign of the cross pendulating his rifle muzzle through the air. I hadn’t sinned yet, my uniform was clean. I was nothin’, an FNG, a fuckin’ new guy. What the fuck did I know? Was this ammo box really empty?

The Major’s face commenced to shed, and words fell out in drools of blue spittle, his flesh peeled back on sheets of wind and fell like raindrops into pools of blue blood. Everyone was going blue, bleeding, and crying blue tears. My arms, my hands, my fingers like tree branches sprouting blue streams. The Major’s hair in one fell swoop burst into bright orange flame, arcing out across an orange sky, orange as if a sunset had swallowed it whole. I put my hand to my face and my nose came off in my hand, blue lips impressed upon a blue palm. In a swishhhhhh of orange blue vapor, the Major, Elijah-priest was all gone.

I could feel my ears dribble, dripping off, my eyes leaking out of the sockets, waist deep in a whirl of blue bubble and torrent I was thrashed and spun about. From the heavens came a blue rain, rap, a-pat, tap, and blue stoned hail the likes of hot screaming metal chunks, fi, fo, fum! A murderous raging pain in my chest gashed forth, bone-pierced flesh like the great sea had been parted, and split me in fucking two. “My God,” I cried out in slumberous garble. “Take all of me.”

Slam, “Fuck!” Into the wall, I’d kicked the dog. Smack! Against the window pane, cast down like a bad, scorned, forlorn angel into the bottom of the dresser, and out across the fuckin’ floor. Low crawl, belly drag. I’m fuckin’ belly up here now. Awake! Cold with sweat, naked, free, freezing. I’d bruised my head, my fist and rug burns to my knees and chest. My side hurts, and the curtain is torn. It’s raining harder now, and the sky splits, flash, spits, rat-a-tat-tat like machine-gun fire. Kerplunk, plunkety, plunk into buckets, drain pipes like blood gutters, bullet holes, buttonholes, and this empty hollow feeling at the pit. I’d been pitted, gutless, so fucking vacant. Whose sins are these? Are we all really dead? What the fuck did Elijah want? And the moon’s a grayish hint of blue hue, and shadows by streetlight upon the rain-beaded window glass, silhouette on the wall like black tears. Jesus, where’s my blanket? Afraid to sleep anymore, but I need so badly, so bad, to get warm.

Three days back in the world and I’m up before the birds, before the trees, before the sky and branches reaching. Waiting, waiting for the sun to begin, for the heat to come up before I come out from my blanket. A train whistle off in the distance, up the block, two clicks. It ain’t that kind of whistle or siren, and the fuckin’ streetlight goes out. Again I’m in blue-gray shadow, still waiting. Church bells, and the wind chimes off the back deck. Newsprint hits the front steps, the workings of a bicycle chain. Squawk! A squawking blackbird sounds reveille. I’m an empty Bat-Car, third car from the rear. Three hundred and sixty-five of’ em. Stop counting, stop waiting. It’s Easter, Easter fucking Sunday! Beyond the torn curtain lace there are only shadow limbs groping for the sky. Other blackbirds squawking now like a party of thieves. Fresh road kill, I heard the brakes an hour ago, screech and thu-thump! Fuckin’ Rodney never knew what hit him! If! Another fuckin’ whistle, another train in the opposite direction.

Me and Jimmy, brothers Don and Jeff, Johnny, Mule, Gonzales, Worm, and Billy Gibbons, us Dick Street Bombers, we played on them tracks. We played war, Get-the-Bag, Kick-the-Can, Hot-Beans. We built forts under the bridge, dammed up the creek, hit homers over the fence, over the rails. We smoked cigarettes, sipped wine, talked sex. We showed each other our dicks, Johnny had the biggest. “You idiot, babies didn’t never come from fuckin’ storks!”

There are other birds talking now, red, blue, and gray. A coo, cooing mourning dove takes Bight. The rhythmic hammer of that train passing, the heat hiss, hissing up. My cigarette ash falls to my chest. A neighbor’s car whines, starts, grinding gears and drives off. I’m safe here, without really thinking, not consciously, but the night’s fuckin’ over. And again, we get to do it again.

I come out from my blanket, push up from my hands to my feet and stand naked before the window. There are no faces in the glass, but mine; what’s only me is scary. We stretch. I’m five-foot-ten and all of 135 pounds. I’m apart, a part of, superimposed upon that tree, without leaves like lines of bark my ribs can be counted. When I left for the war I was 160 and flawless, but the heat, sweat, bad water and food, C-rations, and constant diarrhea made me as thin as a communion wafer, lean like a manhole cover. My eyes sunken-in like a sewer rat’s, more black than blue anymore, my face long and narrow and missing teeth. Who is it? It ain’t me, these puffs of white steam. Is it breath? Am I breathing? Or am I just a broken limb, a cut branch, kindling for the fire? Is this cover about to blow, and who will receive me?

I put my pajama bottoms on and realize I’ve put them on backwards. I’ve stopped pissing out my asshole or I’d be politically correct, could be fuckin’ president. I need to make myself laugh, me and God share a laugh. There are no bunkers here, but for an old sparrow’s nest under the eaves of shingle next door. I’ll go ahead now and turn myself around.

Squirrels padding, pit-pat, pit-pat on the roof above, voices down below. Too much fuckin’ TV. The front door creaks, and the screen door grates. My father retrieves the paper, his mumblings about it having blown apart. Yes, I have seen the pieces, bits of brain matter, all pink, and blue, and gray flesh. Just one, one patch. “Jesus,” he snaps at my little brother watching cartoons, “Turn it down!” His life’s so fuckin’ simple: work, drink, eat, drink, sleep. “Let the dog out.” Oh, and how he loves his crossword puzzle as he makes his way across the dining room, shuffling pages, into the kitchen, into his coffee cup.

The bathroom is pink and gray tiles, and too fuckin’ bright. Kill the light! This piss is freedom, emancipation from one’s inner demon: a moment’s bliss like a yawn or a sneeze. Only with these bodily functions is there any reprieve. A good dump is king, but for a shot of dope. If! What Casey already knows. I splash some water on my face, but still come back orange. It’s that clay, red dirt, those convoys in an open Jeep, too much fucking sun.

My mother’s voice rises up from the kitchen, a wafted aroma of coffee, eggs, and bacon, sizzle, pop-pop. No small-arms fire here, just appetites. Mom’s cooking will soon enough fatten me up. Only one night we feasted on steak, Shrimp Scampi, Brussels sprouts, my favorite, and wild rice. I had two pieces of strawberry shortcake. “How was it?” she asked, and without thinking I blurted out, “Fucking great! Best fucking meal I ever fuckin’ ate!”

My youngest brother and sister, Billy’s seven and Marianne’s nine, sat there dumbfounded, mouths agape. Everything stopped as if a rock had hit, like someone farted in church, but you’d better not laugh. Shay, eighteen, and John, fifteen, took to snickering; even Dad was holding back a hoot.

“Well,” said Mom, attempting to rise above the muzzled snorts, ‘‘I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I don’t like that word.” She tittered, giggled and we all broke loose in wholehearted laughter.

I made my way down the stairway, downstairs, Bugs Bunny askin’ “What’s up, Doc?” Doc took one tiny piece of shrapnel in the temple sitting on his cot reading a letter from home, just a head above the sandbag line.

If! Nothin’ was up, but fucked up, and Doc’s world stopped six days short of leaving. Don’t mean nothin’! Still I couldn’t stop the thoughts, the sleepless nights, the fuckin’ nightmares. This wasn’t the place I thought home would be, the war hadn’t been silenced. Still, I was bored, I missed the goddam excitement, the killing game. This world had no meaning, no life and death consequences. Yeah, it was me who’d changed, everything else was the same only a year older. A year of hell, how could I ever again lie on a beach and tan myself?

I opened the door and stepped from the stairwell into the living room. Marianne was hiding between the upstairs and foyer doorways. Elmer Fudd was about to kill that cwazy wabbit. “Boo!” she screamed, this high-pitched screech like a rocket whistles when it’s in your lap. I went up like a prizefighter does from an uppercut to the jaw, then down, down for the floorboards, stopped! Stopped myself, than snapped, snapped right the fuck out of myself! She was laughin’, God was laughing. I jacked her up off her feet by the threads of her pajama top like a dog would shake a rag-doll in its mouth, pinning her shoulders back up against the wall. Her eyes met my stony-cold, blackened rage! It wasn’t her but the enemy I saw.

“Never, never fuckin’ do that to me, never! Do you hear me?”

My mother ran in from the kitchen, spatula in hand, waving it like a scepter, a magic wand over a pimply frog, “Put her down! Put her down this minute.” There were all kinds of whistles screaming in my head.

“Put her down!” My father’s voice reverberated, pinging off walls, and out the back of my brain. He threw his pen and crossword puzzle at me, spilling his coffee. I’m an empty flat-car, third car from the rear. Bones was snapping at my PJ’s. “Now!” He bellowed from a safe distance and looked to my mom as if asking, what are we gonna do now?

Billy sat bug-eyed, amused, gawking at me from the couch, this was better than any cartoon, I was cwazier than that fucking wabbit. Tears were streaming down my sister’s face. What? This fear, it’s mine, I thought, from the depths of the dead and the missing. My God, my God, but couldn’t say it. I’d brought the trauma home. I’m the fuckin’ enemy here.

The Homecoming

Somehow one more day and night managed to slip away and mark its moment in timelessness. Jimmy Taylor let his dream of home linger behind his closed eyes a little while longer. He struggled to keep the outside world away, but it was proving to be a losing battle as the clamor of the day pried its way into his ears, and shadowy light slipped through his closed eyelids. It was another shit day in-country.
The hooch came slowly into focus as he reluctantly let go of his reverie and willed his eyes to open, leaving the comforting images of home and family to slip into a safe harbor for another time.
Jimmy shared the hooch with nine other enlisted men of the 174th Assault Helicopter Company. It wasn’t exactly designed for comfort, but it offered a comparative luxuriousness not available in the sand bagged bunkers on LZ Sue that he called home before coming down to LZ Mustang. He wasn’t sure at first if transferring to an AHC was a smart move, but he was tired of the rats and filth, and days on end without ample water to clean himself. His arms and legs tingled and burned from the numerous yellow pustules that covered them; the only little relief coming from rainfall showers, or a quick dip in a river while on a walk in the boonies.
His bed was one of ten Army cots lined five to a side in the dusty, oblong, screened building. A scrounged sleeping bag and poncho liner served as mattress and blanket. Wooden ammo boxes served as cabinets and drawers for personal items; a scant attempt at order and sanity in this hell-hole existence. And, as it might be mistaken for, there was a shower room which was nothing more than a wooden box with an open water tank perched high on one side that collected rain water heated by the sun and gravity fed to six shower heads. It was the only thing close to heaven, and his sores, properly treated, eventually healed and disappeared.
Jimmy brought his hands to his head and rubbed gently. His head ached sharply and felt as though it were going to burst. The headaches had become a daily ordeal over the last few weeks. He had been x-rayed by the docs, soothed by the chaplain, and probed by the shrinks, but nothing of medical, spiritual or psychological concern was found. Yet the headaches persisted.
The incessant slapping clatter of choppers hammered into his aching head and rattled the hootches as they ferried men and material to the bush. The olive drab Hueys rose slowly, but gracefully in spite of their loads, and drifted quickly towards the jungle and waiting troops on the hunt for an elusive enemy.
The morning sun sliced its way through the rows of wooden buildings and onto Jimmy’s gaunt and unshaven face. It had been a long time since he slept that hard, the last interruption coming in the middle of the night forty-eight hours earlier when eight mortar rounds slammed into the compound; missing anything of importance. No one had been killed…this time.
Jimmy was exhausted and felt old beyond his years. Having turned nineteen four days out of Qui Nhon in September, 1967, he spent that morning in the galley of the USS Gordon nursing a cup of coffee; watching mesmerized as the horizon rose and fell through the rain streaked porthole, contemplating what fate might have in store for him. He wasn’t anywhere near old enough to vote or buy a beer, but he was old enough to kill…or be killed.
Jimmy was a door gunner on a slick, a Huey designed to carry men and supplies to battle. Since the TET offensive, their missions had been frequent and fierce as they sought and made contact with Viet Cong and NVA units. The war was definitely building up, and more times than he cared to count, all hell broke loose as they dropped into hot LZ after hot LZ.
His crew had flown missions day after day for…for God knows how long. “Too goddam long”, he thought to himself. Three weeks earlier the unit lost two ships and all crew with the exception of one badly wounded Pilot, Warrant Officer Dave “Pops” Fuller.
Squad sized elements of Task Force Cooper, separated into patrols, had been on the ground in a week long operation to surround and flush out a suspected VC and NVA enclave on the Batangan Peninsula in Quang Ngai Province. For several days they had encountered small arms fire and lost several men to bullets and mines as they approached the hamlets, only to be told by the very young and old occupants, “No VC. No VC.” Was it truth? Or was it fear of reprisal?
Two days later the word came from division to pull back to the LZ for pick-up. Frustrated and bloodied, the grunts moved out; eager for the end of the hump and a ride back to Mustang. The platoon was about one-hundred and fifty meters from the hamlet, when a command detonated 155-milimeter artillery shell ripped through the middle of the column, sending body parts and dirt in all directions. Pitiful cries and screams of wounded men were quickly muffled by the frantic crackle of AK-47’s and M-16’s. The ground shook as grenades flew back and forth and the air was filled with guttural howls and terror filled curses as men on either side fell. They had walked into an ambush.
The choppers were redirected to a secondary landing site while gun-ships raced to the site of the melee. One slick was on the ground and Pops bird was settling in for landing when the secondary site exploded into mayhem. Charlie had anticipated and planned on this move.
The first bird had taken an RPG directly into the cockpit and burst into flames. Pops, acting on instincts, began to reverse his landing when his ship was riddled by small arms fire and an RPG slammed into the rotor housing, nearly snapping the bird in two, sending it crashing hard into the ground. Jimmy’s bird was third in line. Hutch and Ketch pulled the Huey away while Jimmy and Cousins sent death into the tree line. In a matter of minutes both ambushes went silent.
Their Huey now on the ground, Jimmy ran to Pops shattered slick, found him to be barely alive and pulled his mangled and bloody body from the wreckage. He should have died that day three weeks ago, but somehow he hung on and was med-evaced to Chu Lai.

But for today, Jimmy was bone-weary tired. Sleep was what he wanted, but it was not his to have. He slowly rolled over on his side, sat upright, set his feet on the floor and rubbed the burning fatigue in his eyes and the explosive pounding hell in his temples. He sat quietly for a long moment, tempted to lie back down and retreat into his dream once more, but other necessities beckoned him.
He stuffed his feet into his boots and reached for his cigarettes. Lighting his smoke, he inhaled deeply, held it for a moment, and exhaled slowly, letting the gray vaporous cloud escape his lips while his eyes roamed the room.
Door gunner Henry Cousins was still sleeping two cots down. A relaxed, slow talking twenty year old from the South Side of Chicago, Henry was a fast witted joker with a permanent smile and infectious laugh. He was a replacement, joining the 174th in mid-December. Assigned to the same bird, Henry and Jimmy had become friends and flew with pilots Ketchum and Hutchins. Henry had been home on leave before shipping to Nam and had married his high school sweetheart on Thanksgiving Day.
“Ketch” was from Montana and “Hutch” from Wyoming. Both were raised on a cattle ranch and of course were known as “The Cowboys.” Under fire they flew their Huey with a wild grace and finesse that only bronco riding cowboys could manage. They were good, real good.
Jimmy grabbed toilet paper from the ammo box cupboard and ambled out the hooch door.
Shuffling towards the latrines, laces trailing behind, he spotted Riffenbach and Hart, two medics with the 3rd Infantry, running and lugging their gear towards the helipad and their Dust Off chopper. Riffenbach called back to Jimmy as he ran past. “Alpha walked into a two hundred-fifty pounder up a goddam tree. The whole platoon is down. Jee-zus!” They turned the corner at the last hooch in a full run and disappeared as Jimmy approached the latrine.
The latrines were being cleaned and the shit burners were busy down wind. This job usually fell to the villagers who worked every day inside the compound. Jimmy thought this was not a good idea as it was common knowledge that several of the workers were either VC or VC sympathizers. Since coming from the boonies, it always made Jimmy uncomfortable to see the compound busy with villagers. He knew that more than one would be taking notes, counting paces and drawing mental maps. No matter, the compound “city folk” did not want to do the labor, so the villagers came every day, and mortars and rockets fell somewhere on the compound every night.
Jet fuel cocktails burned like giant wickless candles in halved fifty-five gallon drums filled with human waste, sending black putrid smoke into the air. Doc Richards, who was tagged to supervise the Vietnamese crew, sat with Peanuts, an older and crippled farmer in his late sixties who wound up the “foreman” on most details. Doc and Peanuts were leaning against a jeep exchanging English words for Vietnamese, Peanuts barking out intermittentent singsong instructions towards his charges. Jimmy waved as he passed.
Entering the screened wooden box that was the latrine, he peered down the first hole to see if the drum was in place, dropped his shorts and sat gazing out towards the village. The locals were up and working in the fields. He could make out movement in the village through the trees. A young boy of about ten, in black shorts and tan shirt, rode placidly on the back of a water buffalo across the open field to his left. How odd it all seemed. The day was unfolding as easily if it were in his home town, belying the reality of the war torn landscape.
Sitting there, staring out into the early morning, his thoughts drifted to his Illinois home, and to Marci. They were engaged with no date set for a wedding, and now the Army set the date further back. Jimmy smiled as he recalled their last night together. His parents not objecting, she had spent the night with him. It had been a gentle and passionate night filled with loving… and unspoken fear. She nestled up against him and he softly kissed her while they both let their tears fall silently.
A muzzle flash winked a cruel reminder in the tree line and a split instant later the whizz of its savage messenger passed nearby. A shift in the wind stung his nostrils with the pungent fetor of flambéed excrement. Yep, another shit day in Vietnam.

By the time Jimmy reached the mess tent, Staff Sgt.Willie Thomas had already served breakfast and all that was left were a few pieces of bacon, the clumped cold remains of powdered eggs, and coffee. The rest had either been thrown away or was being added to whatever was to be the next meal. It didn’t matter, coffee was what Jimmy wanted and most needed. He sipped the thick brew and watched the cooks clean and prepare for the next meal.
Willie walked up to his table, sat across from him and they made small talk for a while over their coffee. Willie told Jimmy that he heard “Pops” had died at the Army hospital in Yokohama, Japan two days ago. Both men sat silent for a few moments then renewed their chatting.
Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by a loud tlang! A bullet struck the bumper of a passing deuce-and-a-half which was quickly followed by a sudden burst of laughter as the vehicle sped off. Willie shook his head, “Someone needs to find that son-of-a-bitch.”
Finishing his coffee, he picked himself up and left the mess tent and headed for the aid station. He was curious to know what had happened with Alpha Company. He passed the burning half-drums and saw that Doc Richards was gone and had left Peanuts to mind the store; his spindly and twisted arm, the result of a WWII wound, meandered wildly as he pointed, emphasizing his prattled instructions.
Mike “Doc” Richards had come down from LZ Sue the week before. He had been Bravo Company’s second platoon medic since the brigade arrived, but had come down to Mustang before being sent to serve as battalion casualty reporter in Chu Lai. It would be his duty to assess and evaluate the WIA and KIA and report to S-2.
Doc had no idea what was to come. He soon would see hundreds in the battalion, many of them friends, come to the hospitals bloodied and dazed, or delivered to Graves Registration, their still warm lifeless bodies stuffed into olive drab body bags. His ears will ring from the frantic, desperate screams and cries of torn and dying men. His lungs will fill with a foul slaughter house stench and his throat will burn from the acrid taste of death.
Jimmy and Doc did their basic training together at Fort Knox, Kentucky. They had become good friends, and then went separate ways for AIT, Doc to Fort Sam Houston, Texas and Jimmy to Fort Benning, Georgia. They bumped into one another again when Doc climbed into Jimmy’s chopper at Mustang on the way up to LZ Sue. It was a reunion of old friends.
The Aid Station at Mustang was well sandbagged. Everyone called it “The Castle” as it stood impressively and nearly impregnable with its triple rows of sandbags neatly stacked around the hootch. Everyone may have joked at its immensity, but it was all in jest. They knew this could be their one hope should they need medical aid. The medics were determined to protect themselves and their patients.
Jimmy passed the “Old Guard” sign, pulled the screen door open and walked in. Doc was sitting with a few other medics on the left who were watching while he wrapped Lt. McKay’s swollen ankle; twisted while on ambush the night before.
Jimmy sat on an ammo box, propped his arms on the table and listened as LT talked softly about his wife and newborn child. “We named him Roy McKay the third.” His eyes closed and his hand went up to his face to wipe a tear. “I can’t wait to see him. My wife says he’s beautiful” Doc finished his wrap and gently tapped LT.’s calf. “Okay here…you’ll be fine, Sir.”
Lt. McKay stood and smiled. “Thanks, Doc,” he whispered and limped out the door. He would die in a firefight six days later.
“What’s up, Jim? How’s that headache?” Doc said putting supplies away.
“Hurts like a bitch” he said rubbing his temples and forehead.
“You should talk with Bennett” Doc suggested, filling his aid bag.
Paul Bennett had been majoring in psychology at the University of Indiana. With one year left to graduation, and suffering from burn out, he dropped out and was drafted soon after. The army of course did not want to waste any part of his education and stuck him into a four-deuce mortar platoon while the brigade was still stateside. The battalion doctor pulled some strings and had him transferred into the medical platoon.
“Is Paul here? I thought he was in Chu Lai?”
“He’s over at the 6th Support Hospital right now. You should talk to him, Jim.”
“I might do that, Mike” Jimmy replied. “I just might do that. “What’s up with Alpha? I ran into Riffenbach and Hart”
“First platoon. They were on the beach, I think, and headed for a tree. Charlie set off a big fucker. The last we heard was nine KIA. Everyone else is wounded, four pretty bad.
“No shit?”
“Yeah, the whole platoon is down.”
Jimmy grabbed a cigarette from an opened pack on the table, lit it and let out a long sigh.
“What the hell where they doing going to a tree?” Jimmy asked in disbelief.
Doc shrugged his shoulders and shook his head slowly. “I don’t know.”
A long pause in conversation was finally broken when Jimmy asked, “Have you heard anything about Holmes?”
“Not yet. I would guess he’s stateside somewhere. He might even be home by now.” Doc answered.
Just days before TET, while on patrol with Delta Company, medic Eric Holmes stepped on one of Charlie’s home made toe-poppers. He was fortunate that it was a small device; he only lost part of his foot, if you want to call that fortunate. I’m sure he’d say it was…he went home
The talk went on for a little while longer. It was the usual chatter about home, wives and girlfriends. Mason and Miller from 6th Support car talked. Parker was cutting Lt. Tanaka’s hair and passing gas. Both men were laughing hysterically. The quick flutter of a lone projectile hissed overhead.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Will someone cap that asshole already,” Miller barked.

Jimmy made his way back to the hooch, lay back down on his cot, and thought about anything but the events of the day. The remnants of his earlier dream and thoughts replayed behind his closed eyes. Cousins was gone and all was strangely, but gratefully quiet. He drifted into that ether world where reality and dream almost become one. All things there are serene; clear and still. He could almost see it, feel it. If only he could drift a little further he was convinced he could really be home.
His silent reflection was shattered by the frantic stomp of boots running towards him. His eyes flew open as Henry crashed through the door.
“Jimmy,” Henry struggled, nearly out of breath, “Reef and Hart went down!”
Jimmy bolted upright. “What! Henry, what!?”
“Deef and Hart…their bird went down. I think they’re all dead”
“Did they get to Alpha?”
I don’t know…I don’t think so. We’re sending another chopper. Ketch wants us on the 60’s.”
Jimmy had his flak jacket half on and was reaching for his helmet as Cousins was talking. Both men sprinted out of the hooch and toward the helipad.
The bird was already fired up and six grunts were already on board. Ketchum and Hutchins were hastily doing a flight check. Ketchum waved them on board. Jimmy jumped in and pulled Cousins inside just as the bird lifted and swooped across the helipad.
They were flying full speed at tree top level. Everything below them was nothing but a maddening blur while they readied themselves for the coming melee. So much for the day off, Jimmy said aloud as the ground, trees and village sped by below them.
Fifteen minutes out they banked to the left and Hutchins pointed downward. Jimmy was on the port sixty and spotted the downed Dust-Off chopper. He stared into the thick tree line below. Nothing. The bird suddenly slipped tail out and nosed up as they banked right and changed directions for an approach. Dropping in from the Southwest they took ground fire. Ketchum leveled out, banked right and began to climb. Henry opened up sending burst after burst into the shadows. On the return pass, Jimmy did the same.
The tell tale tic-tic-tic of VC ground fire hitting the chopper sent the bird into wild gyrations as Ketchum manipulated the controls and pedals. The big slick screamed and shrieked as it yielded to the pilots’ evasive commands.
Jimmy fought to keep his rounds headed into the tree line. He could see the muzzle flashes blink in the dark foliage as they sent their hellish death towards them. Turning his head to check on the pilots, he felt a hot searing pain tear into his thigh. “Shit! I’m hit. I’m hit!”
Henry Cousins, secured by his harness, sat slumped, his sixty now silent. A bullet had ripped through the last thoughts of his new bride, his dead body flailing with the convulsive motions of the Huey.
Jimmy shifted to check on the pilots again. CW2 Sam “Smiley” Hutchins had turned to check on his door-gunners and smiled when he saw Jimmy. He suddenly grimaced in surprise, and then pain as a round hit his elbow, throwing his arm wildly up and into the back of Ketchum’s head. His face went blank as a second round passed through his chin and out his headgear.
Ketchum glanced quickly at his co-pilot and hit the mic switch with his foot and breathlessly called out, “Henhouse six, this is Red Tail…over”
“Go Red, six Oscar, over”
“We hit a hornet’s nest. Two down. One wounded”
Tic-tic. Tic-tic-tic.
Ketchum continued to yell status into his headset as he coaxed the green ship into wild twists, dives, and turns. Jimmy felt the sting of another deadly intruder, then another. “God, Please, God. No.” He slumped back into his seat, his body useless. The pain was hard and brutal and he felt himself slipping away. He managed a last fading glance towards Ketchum as round after round now struck the bird. Tic-tic-tic. She was going down. Ketchum fought the controls, but it was useless…it was done. Jimmy passed out.

Jimmy stood for a long quiet moment at the end of the street. It had been a long while since he was home. It was almost too good to be true. He tensed for a moment, but now as he walked down the familiar street leading to his boyhood home, he let himself feel safe. The early morning was clear and beautiful; the late summer air sweet and cool. Serene, clear and still. The mayhem and madness of Vietnam was finally over. It was just an experience waiting to become a memory.
Nothing appeared to have changed much in the time that he was gone. It all looked the same as it did on the day he left. A small gentle breeze washed over him. His gait was slow as he made his way up the street. His heart beat with the anticipation of being with his family again.
Passing the empty lot where as a young boy he played ball with his friends he noticed that the Porter’s living room window was broken again. How many times had he and his friends sent a ball through that window? Countless times, he thought to himself. Jimmy smiled at the thought of the next generation stepping up to the plate. The Porter’s must be on vacation and in for a surprise when they returned. He was just three houses from home.
Jimmy walked onto the driveway, stopped, set his duffel bag down, and stood in grateful silence and let his eyes consume the womb of his youth, the safe haven of his boyhood. That boy was different now…forever changed. There is no way for the innocence of youth to remain unspoiled by the irreparable realities of war. Every combat veteran who makes it out alive is wounded, wounded in ways that are not visible to the civilian, and in many ways that are not immediately recognized by the veteran himself. The beast burrows deep inside the folds of memory, hiding, waiting to ambush and devour sanity. No one…not one walks away without a wounded spirit.
He was overcome with a warm and emotional peace as the familiar comfort of home welcomed him. He slid his hand back and forth over his thigh. Nothing, he thought to himself. He was surprised that he felt no pain. He shook his head in an attempt to dispel the thought. His wounds were spirit deep. “God”,…he silently prayed, … “Thank you.”
Grabbing his duffel bag, Jimmy made his way up the driveway, onto the walk and up the stairs. He peered through the screen door and saw his mother at the table. He stood watching her for a long silent moment, a warm smile on his face; his eyes taking in the familiar surroundings. It was good to be home.
“Ma”, he called softly.
She did not move.
“Ma,” he quietly called once more, “I’m home.” But again she did not move.
Only now did he see that she was weeping, her head resting in her left hand, her sobbing deep and mournful. Her right arm hung limply at her side clutching a photograph. It was his.
“Ma,” he cried out. “Ma? Ma!”
She slowly looked in his direction but her eyes did not see him. Tears fell slowly down her cheeks as she softly wept.

The gunship circled above the two downed choppers while the Medevac chopper held back. Drawing no fire, they descended rapidly and set down in the tall grass. Half the team set up a perimeter, the other half headed towards the smoking wrecks. Several bodies had been thrown from the Hueys on impact and it appeared that all had been killed.
An eerie silence entombed them as they warily approached the wreckage. It was the perfect set up for an ambush, but it appeared that Charlie had gone.
“We have one here, sir!” an excited grunt called out. “I think he’s alive!”
The wounded man was barely alive, his eyes locked on an inner vision, his mouth trying to speak. Leaning closer, the grunt heard the barely audible last words of Jimmy Taylor.
“I believe he’s calling for his mother, Sir… he’s calling for his ‘ma.’

© 2006 Richard Raitano

Hush puppies, hookers and hammocks

Hush puppies, hookers and hammocks

By Tom Skiens

I bought a pare of size 8 1/2 hush puppies at the retail shop on the ground floor of the Singapore Ambassador hotel. The hush puppies were the “in thing” on my 21st birthday, June 21st 1968. I also bought a Hammock, a 4X4 orange tarp and a hooker of Indian nationality. In order to make my 21st birthday complete I visited three Indian snake charmers with a cobra in a jar and a bag of weed in their hand. I stayed away from the snake but I took possession of the weed.

As the day moved on I traded in my Indian nationality hooker for a younger model. The mommasan pimp didn’t mind. Her standard advertisement was, “you like boom boom number one cherry girl, she love you long time”.

The Ambassador hotel was filled to overflowing with G.I’s fresh out of Vietnam and all of them were looking for the same thing. Showers, flush toilets, clean sheets, music, booze, women and a telephone call back to the world. The kind of a call where after you finish speaking you must say “over” and then after your mom on the other end of the line finishes talking she must say, “over”. This makes for a difficult conversation but talking to my mom on my 21st birthday from Singapore, priceless.

The hotel was making a mint off the American servicemen on their one week escape from Vietnam. It made no difference if the G.I. job was in the rear with the gear, humping the bush, hurling 60 tons of steel down highway one, a cannon cocker, a rotor head or a rubber tired mine magnet, the goal was the same. Get laid before you get laid and get drunk while you are doing it. Everybody at the hotel got rich and the G.I had the best R&R story he could ever have dreamed of. I did not make friends with the other G.I’s at the hotel. I would say Hi in passing and that was about it. I felt like all my friends were dead and so was I. The most conversation I had was with college students who played music at the bar. The students were in the middle of a revolution, declaring Singapore a Free city state and breaking away from China. I found out years later that they were successful.

I told my hooker friend a story about my life. It goes like this. I wave goodbye to my mother and thank her for washing my Basketball uniform as I open the door of the “47” Ford I bought for $50.00 with money I had earned thinning trees with a chainsaw the summer before. “If I didn’t wash your uniform, who would”, she says. I smile and say, ” Sorry mom, I will give you more warning next time but they just told us about the pictures this morning. I have to go, the Varsity photos are scheduled in less than 10 minutes. By, love you”

I back out of the driveway being careful not to scrape the white picket fence. I drive 1/2 of a mile north on Egan street and take a left on W. Tyler street. It is five blocks from here to Hwy. 395 and then less than a 200 yards to the high school. I travel four blocks and begin to slow down for the approaching intersection. All of a sudden the front of my car explodes, my windshield is shattered but still intact. What the hell has happened? My car glides to a stop. I try to open the drivers door but it is jammed. What the hell has happened?

I slam into the door as hard as I can with my left shoulder, the door begins to move with the metal on metal scraping of steel bent against steel sound. I hit the door again and it opens enough to allow me to exit. My windshield is broken with a thousand lines going off in as many different directions. What the hell has happened? I turn around and see a Honda motor bike lying twisted and broken on the road to my east. I walk four steps toward the rear of my car. I see the legs of a person on the pavement. I take two more steps. I hear a girl screaming and I see her boyfriend, the senior class president and honor student lying on the ground. Randy will lay there forever. The ambulance will come and take him to the hospital. Randy will die a week later, His family will grieve and the ramifications for the other lives involved will begin to mature.

My mother will tell me as she dies of cancer how she crossed the street for more than 20 years to avoid coming face to face with Randy’s mother. On one occasion, Mrs. Russell followed my mother across the street and cornered her in an isle of a store. She begged my mother to quit avoiding her and said that she held no blame for anyone in our family concerning her son’s death. My mother and I both cried together.

I am tasked to ask the question,” why him and not me”? I will go to war to search for the meaning of life. I will come to know death in the war but I will struggle to have a relationship with life.

I ask my hooker friend what she thought about my story and she said,” I no understand English so good. You want boom boom now”. I was glad she neither spoke nor understood English. I needed to tell someone about Randy who would not attempt to absolve or blame. She was the perfect listener. I gave her all my money when I left town.

The return flight from Singapore to Vietnam is filled with a ghost like silence. Everyone partied hardy the last night of the R&R. Leaving no drink standing, no hooker unrewarded, no laugh repressed, no lie untold, we did our job well.

I have made love, not to the one I love. I have slept with, showered with, not the one I love. I return to a place where I know I will die. It is just a matter of time. It is more certain than the notion of living. I can visualize my death but I cannot visualize my life.

The Asian heat of Singapore is similar to that of Vietnam. It sucks the air from my lungs, sticking to my body like Elmer’s glue. The heat and memories of a weeks worth of sex, a hangover, a meal plus the steady rhythm of the jet engine lead me to a dream filled sleep.

In my dream it is April 19, 1968. I am the fourth person back in the left column. The other column is less than 10 yards to my right. We should not be this bunched up. God knows we have hit enough booby traps to learn. I see and hear an explosion to my right front less than 15 yards away. I drop to the ground but before my stomach touches I am on my way back up.

I know what this is. It is the same thing as January 13, 1968. A Bouncing Betty leaves us with two dead and eight wounded. Zimmerman and I are the next two unwounded in the column and we must walk the line. (See: “Betty“.) Today is not much different.

I move to the right column, drop my rucksack and get the PRC 25 radio from my radio telephone operator. 0900, grid square BS 533853, Company C request dust off for two KHA, two WHA result bouncing Betty. I move into the zone making sure the path is clear for the medics. A fucking new guy walking point in the left column has hot steel in his stomach.

The F.N.G. came in on the resupply chopper the night before and has been with the company less than 14 hours. The company put him in first Platoon and first Platoon put him on the point in the left column. First day in the bush and the F.N.G. gets hot steel in his stomach which may result in him going home. The guy at my feet, dead. The next guy, dead. The next guy, Platoon leader, LT. his right foot is blown off and his right hand doesn’t look good, he will probably lose it. He is moaning from shock and pain. His weapon has been thrown to the right, it is destroyed, useless.

I yell at the F.N.G. to stop running around because he may set off another mine. Sgt. Don fox and Zimmerman talk the F.N.G. to safety. In three days Zimmerman and I will be on our bellies crawling over to Sgt. Fox who will have a bullet in his belly that pentrated through his weapon befor entering his body. Higher/higher said it was Auitomatic weapons fire but I was standing next to him and only remember 1 round. Two days after the Sgt. Fox dust off Zimmerman will be involved in another Bouncing Betty and I will on the radio calling in another dustoff. Charlie 1/1 is getting beat up.

A medic asks me to help put one of the dead on a poncho so we can drag him to the approaching chopper.

I rifle through the guys rucksack to get a poncho while the medic rolls him onto his back. I find pieces of bone and blood on the inside of the grunts rucksack. For the first time I look at the dead guys face. It is my friend John John.

I am stunned, shocked. This is the day, the hour, the minute and the grid coordinates where the American dream dies for me. Dark clouds invade my mind, a deep numbing pain penetrates my soul. The medic wants me to lift the right side of the body. John John is pulverized flesh from head to toe, like the Gook on the receiving end of a B-52 package. Concussion and shrapnel have transformed his body to the consistency of firm Jelly. I can’t find anything solid enough to lift.

A year passes, then two, finally I see the middle finger of his right hand, I test it to see if it will stay attached to his body as I lift. I grab a hand full of bloody pants leg with my right hand and lift the lower part of his body off the ground. I pray that pieces of his body do not come off in my hands as I lift my dark broken friend high enough to set him on the poncho.

April 19, 1968, 0900 hours, grid BS533853, I died, the dream ends, no preparation, I be zombie. I died because it was the easiest and fastest way to deal with my problem. I could not move forward while packing the weight of the dead and I could not leave them behind. I must sacrifice a part of my soul so my body can move on. I don’t have time to morn, only to tuck the memory of the mangled bodies into the corners of my mind and keep on humping.

The corners of my mind will meld over time
The visions of the dead come more often
I’ve recorded their names and absolved them of chains
While I’m busy constructing my own coffin

A zombie gets off the return flight from the Singapore R&R in Chu Lai July 3rd 1968 and finds his company waiting on the tarmac for a C-130 to take them north. He goes to the orderly room and puts together his gear including: Rucksack, weapon, ammo, C’s, smoke grenades, steel pot, Poncho, Pancho liner, Jungle knife, 4 canteens, smokes, matches, Bug juice, TP and lots of shoe strings because they are the only thing in this Army that you can get plenty of and they always work.

I use shoe strings to tie around my legs, above my calves so that they will keep the leeches lower. Shoe strings to tie the souls of my boots on when they come apart in the jungle. Shoe strings to tie my poncho to stakes and pegs to make a hooch for the night. Shoe strings to tie the PRC 25 mike close to my ear so only I can hear. Shoe strings to tie my socks to the outside of a rucksack so they can air out. Shoe strings for splints and slings. The strings that keep the grunts alive exist only because the black market finds no profit in them.

I packed my Hush Puppies, the Hammock and the orange 4X4 tarp. The C-130 takes us north about 45 minutes and lands at a well developed fire base. These guys have the works, tanks, APC’s, bunkers with 5 sandbag roofs, NCO club, showers plus heavy artillery like the 175 MM and the 155 MM Howitzer.

We would spend some days here and then choppers would take us to a place not so developed. The Zombie doesn’t know he is dead but he knows how to act like he wants to die. He wears the 4X4 orange tarp on the outside of his rucksack. Sticking up above his head is the antenna from the PRC. 25 radio he carries. He sometimes walks point adorned in this fashion. The orange tarp and antenna a tempting piece of sniper bate.

I had planned to use The Hush Puppy shoes I bought in Singapore when we dug in for a couple of days near a water source. I hoped to get out of my boots for a couple of hours, go down to the water hole in my Hush Puppies, steel pot, M-16 and nothing on but the armed forces radio network. I never did find that waterhole.

At the first opportunity I dug out the Hammock and tied it between two trees. I quickly realized that if we were to get hit the hammock would be the worst possible place to be. I chucked the hammock and went back to sleeping on the ground where all grunts belong, near a foxhole, curled around a rock with the edge of my steel pot as a pillow.

I used the Orange 4×4 tarp as ground cover for a time. I think it wore out. If I packed it on the outside of my Rucksack much it would not have lasted long. The jungle would surround, choke and destroy it like it did everything else. I think the jungle ate my Hush Puppies.

A final word on the Hooker. I didn’t even know her name. When I left Singapore I did not promise to write her and she did not promise to write me. We both kept our word. If either of us had tried to write I am certain a letter addressed to ” Hooker ” or “GI from Oregon ” would have a difficult time finding the RIGHT “Hooker” or “GI from Oregon.” I for one have never received such a letter.

Meet Jim Dumb

It’s early morning in dry season. Third squad sits cross legged on a carpet of bamboo leaves. We light small chunks of C-4, boil water in canteen cups, mix in powdered coffee, drink and savor the bitter brew. We make jokes, toss C-ration cigarettes to our Kit Carson Scout. His name is Diem Diem but we call him Jim Dumb. Seventeen, thin and dark complected, on patrol our former enemy walks third in line. “Beau coup NVA,” he says, spotting week old enemy foot prints. But we like this black haired, dark-skinned young man and treat him with respect.

D’wee was better. On point he walked fast and signaled danger by flicking his wrist. He knew the jungle’s dark secrets, and kept us safe. But D’wee is dead and now there’s Jim, who smokes and smiles and wouldn’t know a bunker complex from a ’55 Chevy.

Jim Dumb drops the slender five butt packets into a clear plastic bag filled with Newport Menthols, Winston Filter Tips, No Filter Camels, Lucky Strikes, and green US Army matchbooks whose small print shouts “Close cover before striking.” He crinkles the bag shut, drops it into his pack, plucks the cigarette behind his ear, stuffs it into his mouth, lights it, takes a long drag, spews out smoke, strokes his hairless chin, looks at me. Continue reading Meet Jim Dumb

And a B-52 for you

By Tom Skiens

In October 1968 I got a punji stick in my left knee while conducting a combat assault with Charley Company of the 4/3 Inf. I found the punji stick by a large gray moss and debris covered rock I was hiding behind.

I was hiding behind the rock because that’s what I always did when I reached the destination of a combat assault. I would get off the chopper, hide behind a rock or tree, or a piece of bamboo or an anthill or a chick dressed up like a rice paddy Dyke on a motorcycle. I could hide behind a single blade of grass, Or you or him. I was determined to hide behind something because that’s how the army had trained me.

Even though I was an expert at hiding I always liked to be on the first lift of a combat assault. Maybe then I would catch some shit and get out of the bush in a half-way, sort of respectful manner. It never occurred to me that I could die again. Hell, I had already died once.

So I am hiding behind this rock covered with debris from the two B-52s who, 1/2 hour earlier, had dropped half their load in this huge valley that had its mouth pointing in a northeasterly direction.

The B-52’s did a 180 and dropped the rest of their load in the valley. “C” and “D” companies were far enough away to be safe but close enough to be impressed. We could feel the shaking of the earth like God taking command of the planet with a completely controlling hand and moving it about. The sound was a deep, deep rumble unlike the sharp smacking sound of artillery or the air moving freight train sound of 16 inch rounds as they passed overhead. This sound was God awful death from 40,000 feet. Hundreds of bombs going off individually and combining into one move the earth rumble.
Continue reading And a B-52 for you